Lock picking is one of the few hobbies I have that is truly useful in my everyday life. Sure, knowing how to sharpen knives to a mirror edge or start a fire using raw materials is (in my opinion) important, but in my day to day 21st century life, knowing how to bypass locks has come in handy more often. Recently, my grandmother, with whom I am very close, locked her keys in her shed. I wrote about this on our survival forum here, but just to recap – the padlock she had was a China special $2 padlock that was rusted through and through.
As I was picking the blasted thing, I begun musing about what makes a good lock and how people would get started in this hobby. In my opinion, lock picking is more a science than an art. Once you understand the mechanism at play, life becomes infinitely easier. The issue I have with the super cheap locks is that the tolerances are so piss poor that frankly it will make life harder for you or segue you into practising bad habits like forcing pins. A proper lock will require you to set the pins precisely when picking, and consequently, raking around like a madman may work on the cheap stuff, but is sub-optimal with any lock that’s half-decent.
My advice to learn how to lock pick like a pro (or in my case, a decently successful amateur) is to simply practise with non-terrible locks. Buy a dependable lock pick set like the SouthOrd lock pick set that I reviewed and then buy a bunch of locks and spend time feeling the mechanism to the point where you can identify what the pins are and what they do based on feedback alone.
SouthOrd PXS-14 Lockpick Set – eBay / Amazon.co.uk
Clear Practice Padlocks: To Use or Not To Use
Now that the preamble is out of the way, I am going to suggest against something that the “industry” promotes heavily – those purpose built transparent padlocks.
Folks, they are just pure crap. They reinforce bad habits and lull you into a false sense of confidence.
The core issue is that the visual aspects (being able to see the pins) allows you to “cheat,” and in my opinion, numb you to all feedback. I have also noticed that the pin layout on 99% of them makes them trivial to force open using more or less any pick. This is me earlier today popping the pins using a snake rake:
Now this isn’t particularly impressive. I reckon a small child with no training could defeat this lock, but the interesting aspect of it is the utter lack of skill I displayed. I literally just mashed my rake around and sporadically attempted to force the cylinder to turn. No subtlety to the point that I didn’t even bother with a tension bar. Literally just a pick.
Only reason it took so damn long to pop open was the fact that I was doing it through the viewfinder of a camera and I purposefully avoided individually picking any of the pins.
Literally just mash and turn. That’s it. As a side note, please forgive the background sound and jittery camera, but I wanted it to be crystal clear that this was not edited in any shape or form.
What to Use to Practice Lock Picking Instead of Clear Practice Padlocks
I think many of you at home would be shocked to see how easy it is to bypass the bulk of cheap, consumer locks, but nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend bothering to start with them. Instead, I would strongly recommend starting out with “real” locks with consistent mechanisms from which you can learn.
So pick up a decent lock pick set, as I’ve already said, and off you go.
The following recommendations are made in order of difficulty (easiest to hardest). You will notice that I recommend padlocks exclusively, as the think when you pop ’em open, it’s very satisfying and they don’t require a vise to utilize while picking. Practice with them when you have a few minutes of downtime. If nothing else, you can just run your pick over the pins and get used to identifying how many there are and what sort of resistance/challenge they offer.
Now here we go into the recommendations.
Yost V-275 Portable Multi-Angle Pivoting Vise – Amazon / eBay
Best Locks to Practice Lock Picking With – From Easiest to Hardest
Pre-Basic: “I want to impress a girl after watching a Bond movie”
The Masterlock #3 is a lock in name only. We are talkin’ potato grade security here folks! You can literally open it using more or less anything you have lying around the house.
The primary advantage of practising on this potato grade lock is that it will give you a smidgen of confidence that you can open other locks (it’s a nice ego booster when you are first starting out), and the fact that it’s wildly utilized in all sorts of consumer application (bike locks, sheds, garages, etc.) – picking this lock will really open your eyes as to how valuable lock picking as a skill is. Girlfriend lost her bike key? No problem.
Basic: “I want to actually learn how to do this, for reals.”
The Masterlock 140 is a predictable introduction to spools. These pins are tapered on one end and will teach you the joys of false sets and other feedback related dilemmas.
One single spool and 3 standard pins means that it won’t be too hard once you get the hang of it. Tension wrench and a proper kit is recommended.
Low Intermediate: “It only gets easier if you progress.”
The Masterlock 570 is perfect for the low intermediate. 5 pins, spools and a decent introduction to “higher” grade security.
I recommend Masterlock padlocks to practice on because they are widely available, ubiquitously used, and consistent in their flaws.
Mid Intermediate: “It’s only painful if you are not having fun!”
The Masterlock 911 model number says it all.
This is a genuinely annoying lock for beginners. 5 pins, all spools.
I would advise starting with the 140 initially, but once you have mastered single spools it’s a good option to go straight into the deep end.
Expert: “This is not longer a hobby, its a lifestyle choice. I chose this pain.”
American Lock 1100 series – Eugh! 5 pins, lots of serrated options including serrated spools. This is the sort of lock that makes you question why you took up this hobby in the first place.
Masterlock 410 Lockout – This is a very well made Masterlock. Sadly, whilst the cylinder is top notch, the case is designed to be easily bypassed for commercial application (think labs and workshops). If Masterlock put these internals in their other offerings, their reputation wouldn’t be such a running joke.
Godmode: “I don’t need to read this guide as I am better than you.”
The Abus Titalium 80TI/50 padlock. I am very feedback dependent and I really struggle with this lock. I replaced my grandmother’s padlock with an Abus Titalium series because I find it so challenging.
I know some people (ninjas, basically) find it trivial to pick, but to me the lack of feedback makes me feel like I am picking blind. Brutal, and it’s a lock I am still personally working on.
Whenever picking up a new hobby, it’s common that people go too far with the acquisition of gear and “extras.” Remember that golfing movie “Tin Cup” – when the amateur walks into the course with all that “pro golfer” junk?
It’s not useful. I could spend hours recommending garbage from Amazon to buy to “jump start your pick locking hobby!” – but honestly, just get yourself a decent lockpick set, and a few predictable locks and you’re on your way to a good start. You will learn far more from testing, practising, and making mistakes, and consequently become a superior lock picker with some time dedicated and practice under your belt.
keven quinlan says
That’s a nice rundown. Curious where an SFIC 7-pin falls under? I think it’s like a purple belt but I don’t participate in that kind of stuff. If I see something I think I want to pick= which is any lock I happen to pass, lol= I try to pick it. I hate that I have to be incognito though, makes it a lot more difficult. I mostly do SFIC’s and I pop them in less than 2 minutes, usually, though I have had 2 that took quite awhile. I do Corbins too but they are whatever and if I’m drunk I’ll crack a bunch of Master 3’s off the toilet paper roll holders and just try to pick them with every pick I own. It’s also a good way to test out picks though they can mess up a pick so you have to be careful. Anywho, thanks for the article.
Thomas Xavier says
Depends on the cylinder in question, I had a medeco SFIC and it stumped me. Your mileage may vary. The idea of having a bunch of padlocks on the tp roll holders is hilarious- haha.
Nick Thorne says
Thank you for this! I bought a trash lockpick set off of Wish a year ago, never watched any videos on how to do it, and left it alone for a year. Finally had a friend pick it, so I tried and got it within minutes. After a day the see-through lock wasn’t cutting it. I found this article, and bought the master lock 140, and within a day I’m picking it within a few seconds each time, but loved actually getting the feel of the tumblers. I think I’m going to jump straight to the 911 next, hopefully it will be challenging, but not too challenging. Thank you again, this helped pique my picking curiosity insanely!
Thomas Xavier says
You’re welcome Nick.
Great article. Are there any books you would recommend for beginner lock picking? Thanks.
Thomas Xavier says
Honestly I would recommend youtube videos from the lockpickinglawyer & BosnianBill rather than book these days, tutorials often make more sense with visual aid- especially for something as tactile as lockpicking!
A very well written analogy of this art…lock companies should pay us..no.. they won’t.
Thomas Xavier says
To be honest, I do find it interesting that masterlock (for example) keeps selling locks that they know are deeply flawed. Seems really weird to me. Why can’t one of the big firms like Abus make a mass produced version of the bowley lock (for example)?
Very useful; thank you!
I own one of those transparent POS ‘training’ ‘locks’ and I can rake it open in five seconds or less, and I’m a rank novice. I really only have it because it came free with the pickset. I’ve got a bunch of #3s, but I’m going to get some locks from this list, for when the #3s become a waste of my time – which will probably be tomorrow, or maybe the day after. :p
Thomas Xavier says
Glad you enjoyed it, next on the list should be some of the slightly trickier masterlocks (the one with a spool pin).